River water rushing over rocks

Lessons from a River

The inauguration of a new President is always a time of uncertainty. The American system is strong in part because it recognizes the reality of change. Each President gets a fixed amount of time to do the best he or she can do. And then the electorate chooses someone who will bring new ideas and fresh perspective to the task.

Change is always challenging. Those who are happy with things as they are may resist it. Even those who welcome change often have the uneasy feeling that there may be consequences they cannot anticipate.

Change is also inevitable. Nothing stays the same. Products that are popular become obsolete. Scientific discoveries are superseded by new discoveries. Neighborhoods develop, thrive and decay. Children grow and leave home. Elders mentor, advise, decline and die.

These observations aren’t exactly new. Centuries ago, Heraclitus famously observed that we never step in the same river twice.  A turbulent river certainly makes this point in a dramatic way. There are, however, some principles that transcend change, and this is one of them:  Genuine cooperation reliably produces benefits that people cannot generate alone.

So how, with a new administration, should we revise and reinforce our efforts to cooperate so they will survive and thrive despite change?  In our book, Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart, we expand on the river metaphor Heraclitus introduced.  Everyone has had experience with rivers, and many people work to protect them.  Those who live near one become very aware of how it changes over time.  And we can use what we observe to anticipate three areas of vulnerability.

Speed of the Current

First, we notice that the current in a river is always changing.  Sometimes, it may be placid, safe enough for people to float along in inner tubes on a lazy summer day. At other times, especially during the spring thaw, it may be a torrent, sweeping away everything in its path.

Understanding the pace of change offers clues about how we should respond. When change is slow, we can achieve good results by making small adjustments in our cooperative arrangements.  What’s worked in the past is likely to work again.

When change is rapid, we need to be more attentive and more flexible in our responses. Will sandbags keep the river from overflowing? Or will we need a pump to drain the water from the basement?   We must ask similar questions about other cooperative efforts during times of rapid change. What needs to be reinforced? What tools can we use to prevent damage?  What new leverage may we have?

Vulnerability on the Banks

Second, those who observe rivers will notice that problems often occur along the edges.  Even a slow moving stream eventually wears away  some soil, exposing the roots of trees or the base of boulders that will eventually topple.

In our cooperative efforts, we must also pay attention to the margins. Most social arrangements are designed to benefit people “in the mainstream.” But what about those who, for some reason, don’t fit into that category?  They might be different because of their skin color or their religion, their abilities or their preferences.  If benefits for them erode, they will quite naturally be discontent and that will weaken our cooperative efforts.  Whenever possible, we want to anticipate the problems that change might bring to them. Cooperation is more sustainable when its benefits are more inclusive.  

Risks Downstream

Third, what happens upstream has impacts downstream. If someone builds a dam on the river, the water that farmers need downstream may be choked off. If people use lots of fertilizer on fields adjacent to the river, there may eventually be fish-smothering algae blooms where the river meets the lake.  Consequences  may be unintended or invisible to the people who initiate projects upstream but they still bear responsibility for diminishing the prospects of those downstream.

Our social systems are also strongest when we look downstream, trying to imagine people awash in the turbulence created by social change.  Will our efforts compromise what is important to others? How can we avoid or at least mitigate that harm? Do our efforts impose costs on others now or in the future? How can we compensate or at least offset those costs?

In Cooperative Wisdom, we introduce these ideas as a way of practicing Inclusive Integrity. This social virtue is grounded in the understanding that cooperative structures are sustainable only when they take into account the integrity of all the participants.

Imposing the will of one group on others may be effective in the short term but it creates vulnerabilities in the long-term. People cooperate willingly only when benefits are truly mutual. They can be deceived or coerced temporarily, but they will eventually reject arrangements in which their efforts create disproportionate benefits for others and seek out cooperative arrangements that protect and advance what matters to them.

At the beginning of a new administration, those of us who appreciate the power of cooperation must be alert. Yes, we must affirm forms of cooperation that have proved themselves valuable in the past. And we must also attune ourselves to festering problems and emerging possibilities.

Each of us must ask how we can transform our anxieties into actions that will strengthen and expand cooperation. And if we feel overwhelmed, it may help to remember another ancient insight from Heraclitus:  “It is in changing that we find purpose.”

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